Kayla Small Learns Critical Lesson at MCCC: ‘I Am a Fighter’


West Windsor, N.J. -- Kayla Small chose to study at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) for many practical reasons, like low tuition costs and proximity to home. What she learned at Mercer changed her life.

When she finished her last semester in Spring 2020 in the early months of the Covid 19 pandemic, Small had good grades and felt prouder of herself than she had in years. “To me, it meant that I was a fighter,” she recalled.

Small is well on her way to achieving her goal of becoming a substance abuse counselor. Having just celebrated seven years clean and sober, she wants to give people the help that was lacking during her own struggles with addiction. “I want to raise awareness in urban communities that stigmas against addicts run rampant,” she said.

After earning her associate degree in Liberal Arts, Small took several classes at Penn State University, but then decided to apply to the college and program of her dreams: Rutgers University’s School of Social Work. “It’s one of the best social work programs in the country. I've just started my first semester there and I feel at home, as if this is what I fought so hard for,” she said.

Small remembers lots of good things about Mercer, but two classes stand out: Holocaust and Other Genocides with Professor Craig Coenen and Speech and Communications with Professor Alvyn Haywood.

“Dr. Coenen's class is something I'll never forget. He truly cared about us and about the things he was teaching us,” Small said. She recalls a lunchtime event in the Mercer County Holocaust, Genocide and Human Rights Education Center when a World War II Holocaust survivor came to speak. “That was something I will carry with me forever.”

Small notes that Professor Haywood had a similar passion for his subject matter. “He taught us to love public speaking, which is something that's almost impossible for most people. He taught us patience and kindness, and really made us look deep within ourselves,” she said. “If he thought that we weren't feeling okay, or we weren't doing our best, he'd talk it out with us. He showed us how to improve and how to overcome our struggles.”

Small says that learning during the pandemic was challenging. Working 12-hour shifts in a rehab facility, she was considered an essential worker. “I would have to come home and hop on the computer. Staying motivated was the biggest task of them all,” she said, recalling that it felt almost useless to study in the midst of such upheaval.

Still, she persevered. After receiving an MCCC Foundation scholarship (the IEW Construction Group Scholarship), she worked even harder. “Knowing that I would potentially let down the scholarship funders didn't sit right with me, so I knew I had to keep trying. If I stopped studying and just stopped caring, it would make me feel like the scholarship was wasted, and that wouldn't be fair to me or the founders of that scholarship,” she said, adding that without the scholarship, she wouldn't have been able to afford tuition or textbooks.

Small enthusiastically recommends Mercer. “It was the best option for an amazing education that wouldn't leave me in debt, all the while preparing me for a bigger university,” she said. She encourages students to take advantage of the things Mercer has to offer – caring professors, tutoring, and mental health services.

Her main advice to current students is to not give up. “Life is going to get hard. There's going to be times where you think that you should just quit, and that an education won't help you. No matter what, keep fighting,” she said.

Small believes that earning a college degree is worth the struggle. “At the end of the day, having that degree is going to be life-changing, and you'll be glad you followed through with school. If I can promise anything, it's that as soon as that degree hits your hand, you'll know it was worth it,” she said.


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Kayla Small says earning a college degree is worth the struggle.


Kayla Small (far left) at the 2018 Survivors Luncheon with speaker Vera Goodkin (front center). Professor Craig Coenen is pictured far right.